Prefab Alpolic Units: Rapid type and SUM

Fabrikator
Friday, June 3, 2011
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Intersecting ribs form the prefabricated coffee cart's shell (Rapid type)

A coffee stand prototype explores new possibilities for small-scale modular construction.

As part of a push to get its products into the hands of young architects, the Alpolic division of Mitsubishi Plastics sponsored a spring design/build studio entitled “Rapid type” at the California College of the Arts (CCA). The goal was for 15 students, led by CCA adjunct architecture professors Andre Caradec and Kory Bieg, to explore new design uses and assembly techniques for Alpolic aluminum composite materials (ACM), which are most commonly used for exterior cladding and signage. The students had at their disposal not only the school’s resources, but also those of Bieg’s San Francisco-based design and fabrication firm OTA+ and Caradec’s Oakland-based design and fabrication firm, Studio Under Manufacture (SUM). Given the college’s location at the nexus of a burgeoning San Francisco food truck scene and students’ proclivity for caffeine, the team landed on design of a mobile coffee service unit as a means of testing Alpolic’s limits.

  • Fabricators Rapid type, Studio Under Manufacture
  • Designers OTA+, Rapid type, Studio Under Manufacture
  • Location San Francisco, California
  • Status Prototype
  • Material Alpolic
  • Process 3-axis CNC mill

The team envisioned a structure that was reliable and cost-effective while bringing a higher level of design and prefabrication to the food truck industry, which has received a boost in Northern California due to relaxed permitting and code requirements. After feasibility and marketing studies, the team began to design a rolling steel structure wrapped in a waffle grid of Alpolic. The cart would shade employees inside while incorporating a wraparound counter that would allow customers to linger or talk shop with the barista after placing their order. Though an encircling plywood base supports the grid structure overhead, the interior is floorless; employees stand on the ground at the same level as patrons. “It also makes cleanup easier,” jokes Caradec. The 9-by-11-by-8-foot structure sits on industrial casters, allowing it to be pulled into place by a vehicle or by hand.

The completed coffee cart (Rapid type)

The team designed the cart’s waffle grid in Rhino, with each rib section connecting the corresponding perpendicular section with a long notch. After assembling a scale cardboard model, fabrication of 80 ribs from sheets of 62-by-196-inch Mist White Alpolic began in SUM’s shop using a three-axis CNC mill. Exterior plywood shear panels and ribs for the counter and service window structure were milled on the same machine. Those ribs were then wrapped in waterjet-cut 16-gauge mild steel to create the completed work surface.

Once interior Alpolic milling was complete, exterior plywood was installed over the hollow steel frame and final measurements for exterior ribs were verified before milling. After interior and exterior structures were built, the countertop structure was put into place. The entire project was manufactured and assembled in less than a week—in time for the students’ final review, complete with coffee service.

Caradec’s firm recently applied a similar concept to a prefabricated studio. The design is the workspace version of the coffee station, an 8-by-10-by-8-foot-high office for a writer who requested that the space allow him to recline, sit, and stand during the workday. Like the coffee station, the box is built with white Alpolic sheets, but these have been routed on one side, then folded to create a faceted shape. Because of the panels’ construction, they create a hermetic exterior even after folding. A 14-inch marine-grade teak window wraps the structure, creating visibility from any position.

The coffee station prototype design has already received attention from investors interested in putting a line of prefabricated food service stations into production. And other iterations, like the writers studio, could create a new generation of prefabricated structures for a range of applications. “The design can be based on the environment it’s going into,” says Caradec.

The cart's steel-wrapped plywood rib system (Rapid type)

The cart is currently available for special events (Kory Bieg)

At the rear of the cart, a window allows patrons to watch coffee being brewed (Rapid type)

SUM's prefab writers studio en route to its new home (SUM)

The studio in place (SUM)

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